More than 1100 people have died from influenza and pneumonia in the Hunter New England Health district in a decade, NSW government data shows.
Over the decade from 2005 to 2015, more than 30,000 cases were recorded in the Hunter New England area of people being hospitalised for influenza and pneumonia.
The data showed 75 per cent of people aged 65 and over received a flu vaccine in 2014-15, but only 53 per cent of those people had the pneumonia vaccine.
Doctors say people are needlessly risking their lives by not being vaccinated against pneumonia. People aged 65 and over are most at risk.
The data reports influenza and pneumonia together because the two diseases often go hand-in-hand.
Hunter New England Health public health physician David Durrheim said it wasn’t too late to get vaccinated against influenza and pneumonia for this winter.
“We’ve seen the first influenza activity of the season. We’ll start seeing community outbreaks,” Dr Durrheim said.
“But there’s still time to get vaccinated. It takes up to 10 days before people are fully protected against flu, after the jab. Similarly against pneumonia.
“But it’s good for people to get jabbed ASAP, particularly those in the high-risk groups – the elderly, the young, folks with underlying health conditions and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”
The flu and pneumonia vaccines are free for those aged 65 and over and high-risk groups.
But despite this lack of cost, a large number of people aren’t making the effort to get the pneumonia vaccine.
Newcastle University Cojoint Professor Ian Charlton said some people think, “I won’t ever catch pneumonia – I’m fit and healthy”.
Dr Charlton urged those aged 65 and over to get the pneumonia and flu vaccines, saying “your immunity does deplete as you get older”.
Chairwoman of the Lung Foundation Australia’s respiratory infectious disease committee, Associate Professor Lucy Morgan, said pneumonia and pneumonia-like illness were “among the top 15 contributing causes of death nationally”.
They were also among the “top five leading causes of hospitalisation in Australia”.
Pneumonia can be caused by viruses, bacteria or fungi. Pneumococcal pneumonia, caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae, is the only bacterial pneumonia for which vaccination is available.
The Lung Foundation Australia raised concerns that efforts to raise public awareness of the seriousness of the “pneumococcal pneumonia infection are simply not resonating”.
“Even among high risk groups, such as those aged over 65, there are no overwhelmingly high motivators for vaccination,” Professor Morgan said.
“Of immediate concern is that only 36 per cent of research respondents aged 65 and above strongly agree their age puts them at risk of contracting pneumococcal pneumonia, while 33 per cent of those yet to be vaccinated don’t even consider themselves to be at risk.”
While the research reveals 45 per cent of respondents across all age groups nationally would follow their doctors’ advice to get the pneumonia vaccination, only 27 per cent would get the vaccine over fear of catching pneumonia and 22 per cent over fear of pneumonia’s effects.
University of Sydney infectious diseases expert Professor Robert Booy said there was a discrepancy in awareness of the pneumonia vaccination, compared to the flu vaccination.
Professor Booy said the pneumonia vaccine could add five years of “high-quality life” to people.
Lung Foundation Australia chief executive Heather Allan said Australians were aware of the need to eat well and exercise regularly.
“But as a population, we are extremely complacent when it comes to protecting against pneumococcal infection, including good hand and home hygiene, and vaccination,” Ms Allan said.
“We encourage all Australians, particularly those in high risk groups, to recognise that pneumonia is life-threatening, and take appropriate steps to protect against this preventable infection.”
Pneumonia can affect anyone.
As well as older people, those at greatest risk include infants, those with impaired immunity, tobacco smokers and people with chronic illnesses such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes and heart, kidney and liver disease.
Thornton’s Frank Sergi caught pneumonia while he was on holiday in Italy.
“My wife and I both got sick over there. We thought we just had a bad cold,” Mr Sergi, 66, said.
“I had to get some antibiotics when I was there. Unfortunately, they weren’t strong enough and by the time I got another batch I couldn’t get rid of what was wrong with me.”
They managed to make it home.
“It got pretty heavy once I got home,” he said.
“We went to our GP. He said ‘you’ve got what is known as walking pneumonia’. We were both put on a course of stronger antibiotics,” he said.
“My wife Linda got better and I didn’t.
“I had a hard time getting over the pneumonia – it took several months of stronger doses of antibiotics.”
Breathing was difficult.
“My lungs felt about the size of my fist – like I couldn’t take a deep breath.”
The disease also caused him anxiety, which worsened his breathing.
”I couldn’t sleep. I’d get up in the night, watch TV and fall asleep that way. That went on for months.”
Mr Sergi urged people to “keep up flu shots and get the pneumonia vaccine”.
Dr Durrheim said authorities recommend that people get a single dose of the pneumonia vaccine.
Those with chronic diseases should speak to their GPs or specialists about whether they require a booster shot after five years.